IN A rare case of judicial reversal, six men from “nomadic tribes”, whose death sentence on charges of murder and rape was confirmed after they exhausted the review process in the Supreme Court, were acquitted by the apex court after it found glitches in the prosecution case.
The acquittal came 16 years after the arrest of Ankush Maruti Shinde, Rajya Appa Shinde, Ambadas Laxman Shinde, Raju Mhasu Shinde, Bapu Appa Shinde and Suresh Shinde for the murder of five members of a family and rape of one of them at Bhokardhan in Maharashtra’s Jalna district on June 5, 2003. Ordering a reinvestigation, a bench of Justices A K Sikri, S Abdul Nazeer and M R Shah also pulled up the state police, which probed the crime and the prosecution, for botching up the case.
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The bench ordered compensation of Rs 5 lakh each to the six acquitted persons, holding that “the investigation is not fair and honest”; that the accused hailed from “nomadic tribes and (were) falsely implicated”; and that all of them, except one who was a juvenile at the time, had spent 16 years in jail. “Before parting with the present order, we strongly deprecate the conduct on the part of the investigating agency and the prosecution,” the order said. It also gave the state government three months to look into it “and identify such erring officers/officials responsible for failure of a prosecution case, on account of sheer negligence or because of culpable lapses” and take departmental action against them if they are still in service.
Police had arrested the six in connection with the murder of a man identified as Trambak Satote, his daughter, two sons and a nephew, who were living in a hut in a guava orchard.
According to the prosecution, the family was chatting after dinner at about 10.30 pm when “seven to eight unknown persons” robbed and fatally attacked it. The criminals left, assuming all of them to be dead, but a third son Manoj and Satote’s wife survived, case records show. The police case rested on the testimony of the wife but the court found several inconsistencies in her evidence. The Supreme Court found that though the wife, in her statement given two days after the crime to the Special Executive Magistrate, “identified four named persons from the album of the photographs of notorious criminals”, this aspect was not probed by police. Due to this, it said, “the real culprits have gone out of the clutches of the law and got scot free”.
The judgment noted that these four persons were different from the six who were sent for trial and convicted. It said that “therefore we are of the opinion that this is a fit case for further investigation under Section 173(8) of the Code of Criminal Procedure qua those four persons, who were identified by” the wife.
In June 2006, the Sessions Court convicted the accused and sentenced them to death. The High Court, while upholding the conviction and death sentence of accused 1, 2 and 4, altered the sentence in respect of the other three to life imprisonment and fine.
On April 30, 2009, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeals filed by accused 1, 2 & 4 and restored the capital punishment imposed by the Sessions Court on the other three. Meanwhile, the other three filed review pleas saying they were never heard by the apex court before restoring the death sentence.
The Supreme Court allowed the review on October 31, 2018, and recalled the April 30, 2009 judgment in respect of all the six accused and decided to hear afresh the criminal appeals filed by them and the state.